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In this Arab Time
The Pursuit of Deliverance
By Fouad Ajami
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Arab Awakening, 2011
The Year of Living Dangerously
"Dear Brother: I write these few lines to let you know we're doing well, on the whole, though it varies from day to day: sometimes the wind changes, it rains lead, life bleeds from every pore," the celebrated Algerian writer Boualem Sansal wrote in an open letter to the Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who had set himself ablaze and launched this time of Arab tumult and promise. Sansal wrote this in June of 2011, six months after Bouazizi's self-immolation. Sansal is a man unillusioned. He had lived through, and chronicled, the Algerian bloodletting of the 1990s. He had summoned the memory of Bouazizi with both hope and dread. "But let's take the long view for a moment. Does he who does not know where to go find the way? Is driving the dictator out the end? From where you are, Mohamed, next to God, you can tell that not all roads lead to Rome; ousting a tyrant does not lead to freedom. Prisoners like trading one prison for another, for a change of scenery and the chance to get a little something along the way."
This essay originally appeared in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 2, March/April 2012, with the title "The Arab Spring at One: A Year of Living Dangerously"; it is republished here in slightly different form with the cooperation and consent of the original publisher.
A rhythmic chant echoed through Arab lands throughout 2011: "The people want to topple the regime." It skipped Arab borders with ease, carried by print and Twitter and Facebook, on the airwaves of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. It had the gift of economy. The regime could be Tunisian or Yemeni, Egyptian or Libyan; the popular wrath knew no boundaries. Arab nationalism had been written off — I own up to being one of the writers of its obituary — but there, in full bloom, was what most certainly looked like a pan-Arab awakening. There were aged rulers — the Syrian despot the exception — and young people in search of political freedom and economic opportunity, made weary of waking up to the same tedium day after day. The rulers had closed up the political world; they had become country owners in all but name. There settled upon the Arabs the sense that they were cursed and alone among the nations, doomed to despotism, the tyranny in their DNA. Waves of democracy washed upon the shores of other nations — Latin America shook off the caudillo tradition; East Asia, whose Confucianism was once seen as a barrier to democratic capitalism, was transformed. Now and then, where they could sustain it and when they could keep the tribalism and the anarchy at bay, Africans flirted with democracy. The solitude of the Arabs in the contemporary order of nations, their exceptionalism if you will, had become a huge moral embarrassment to the Arabs themselves. It was as though they had left history and had become spectators to their own destiny. It was a bleak landscape: terrible rulers, sullen populations, and a terrorist fringe that hurled itself in frustration at an order bereft of any legitimacy. This was the despots' dreamland, it seemed. The postcolonial state among the Arabs had hatched a monstrous world. Kleptocracies had taken hold, and the rulers and their families "devoured the green and the dry." It was estimated that "The Family," as the clan of the former Tunisian ruler and his wife was known, controlled a third of the national economy. The heirs of Hafez al-Assad — his children, his nephews — had come to great wealth and monopolized key sectors of the economy. Muammar Qaddafi may have ranted about socialism, but he and his family knew no line between what was theirs and what was public treasure.
Powers beyond had winked at this reality. This was the best the Arabs could do, it was thought. In a sudden burst of Wilsonianism, in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, American power had given the support of liberty a try. The "diplomacy of freedom," a child of the Iraq war, shook up the dominant Arab order. Saddam Hussein was flushed out of a spider hole, the Syrian brigades of terror and extortion were pushed out of Lebanon, and the despotism of Hosni Mubarak, long a pillar of the Pax Americana, appeared to lose its mastery. Dissidents stepped forth to challenge Pharaoh and, for a fleeting moment, Washington signaled its unease with the Egyptian ruler. Iraq held out mixed messages to Arabs beyond its borders: there was blood in the streets and sectarianism, but there were the chaotic ways of a new democracy, the surprising attachment Iraqis displayed to their experiment with democratic practice. The autocracies hunkered down and did their best to thwart this new Iraqi project. They fed the flames of Iraq, and their jihadists and slick media alike were pressed into this big fight. Iraq was set ablaze, and the Arab autocrats could point to it as a cautionary tale of the folly of unseating even the worst of despots. That fight issued in a standoff: the Arabs could not snuff out this Iraqi project, but the Iraqi example did not turn out to be the subversive democratic message that its proponents held it out to be.
Iraq carried a double burden: the bearer of liberty that had upended the Baghdad tyranny was the United States, and the war had empowered the Shia stepchildren of the Arab world. A traumatic change had taken place. Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid empire, had fallen to the Shia; the American war propelled a hitherto frightened Shia community to power. The last time the Shia had ruled Baghdad was — literally — a millennium ago. And that primacy did not last long, as Sunni internationalism reclaimed it. Now power had come to the Shia courtesy of an American invasion. Baghdad could not carry the torch of Arab freedom. The sectarianism of the Arab world — the dread and contempt for the Shia — blunted the force of this new challenge. In 2003–2005, when this history was unfolding, it was said by Arabs themselves that George W. Bush had unleashed a tsunami on the region. True, but the Arabs were good at waiting out storms, and before long the Americans themselves would lose heart and abandon the quest. An election in 2006 in the Palestinian territories went the way of Hamas, and a new disillusionment with democracy's verdict overtook the Bush administration.
The American war in Iraq had to be rescued, and the "surge" came in the nick of time to turn that war around. The more ambitious vision of "reforming" the Arab world was given up. America could not want freedom for the Arabs more than they wanted it themselves, and the autocracies had survived a brief moment of American assertiveness. A new standard-bearer of American power, Barack Obama, delivered the autocracies a reassuring message. America was done with the diplomacy of change; it would make its peace with the status quo. There were these two rogue regimes, in Damascus and Tehran: the custodians of American power would set out to "engage" them. Iraq had become a big American disappointment. The patina of cosmopolitanism attached to President Obama concealed the unease with the foreign world at the core of his worldview. He was not exactly a declinist, but he had risen to power at a time of American fatigue and economic retrenchment. This was not a man to tilt at windmills in Araby. He would make a stand in Afghanistan — the good war of necessity that he embraced as a rebuke to the war in Iraq — with no illusions about that country. America was to remain on the Kabul hook, even as the president believed that Afghanistan was a hopeless undertaking. The greater Middle East would be left to its furies.
It did not take long for the embattled liberals in the Arab-Islamic world to catch on: when a revolt erupted in Iran against the theocrats in the first summer of his presidency, Obama was caught flat-footed by the turmoil. He was out to conciliate the rulers, and he couldn't even find the language to speak to Iran's rebellion. Meanwhile, the Syrians were in the midst of seller's remorse: they had given up their dominion in Lebanon under duress and were now keen to retrieve it. A stealth campaign of terror and assassinations, the power of Hezbollah on the ground, and the subsidies of Iran all but snuffed out the exquisitely choreographed Cedar Revolution, which had been the pride of the Bush diplomacy.
Realists who assessed the (apparent) balance of forces in this region would have been right to concede the autocrats an eternal dominion. They would have prophesied for the repressive national security states the dynastic succession that had all but transformed the republics of the Arab world into hereditary monarchies. Beholding Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, they would have been forgiven the conclusion that a similar fate awaited Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, and the large Egyptian state that had been the trendsetter in Arab political and cultural life. Beneath this surface stability there was the political misery and sterility of the Arab world. No Arabs with a scant awareness of the world needed "human development reports" to remind them of the desolation of their politics. Consent had drained out of public life, and the glue between ruler and ruled was the pervasive fear and suspicion that poisoned the political realm. The drumbeats of anti-Americanism were steady — this was the release a pent-up population was permitted by its rulers. Modernity, the lodestar of earlier generations of Arabs, had gone into eclipse.
There was no public project to bequeath a generation coming into its own — and this was the youngest population in the world, the "youth bulge" about to sweep away the stagnant order. Bouazizi had taken one way out, and millions of unnamed Bouazizis would take to the streets. The despots, secure in their dominion, deities in all but name, were now on the run. For its part, the United States scurried to catch up with the upheaval. "In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in mid-January 2011 in Qatar, as the storm had broken out. The Arab landscape lent her remarks ample confirmation; what she omitted was that American diplomacy, too, would be buried in this avalanche.
This was, through and through, an Arab revolt, a settlement of the account between the powers that be and populations determined to be done with the despots. These may have been akin to prison revolts; the protesters had not been given skills at governance, but Arabs were done with quiescence. In the manner of big upheavals, this rebellion that broke out in Tunisia had a scent for the geography of things. It had erupted in a small country on the margins of the Arab political experience — more educated and prosperous than the norm in lands to its east, with a sustained traffic with Europe across the Mediterranean. As the rebellion made its way eastward, it skipped Libya and arrived in Cairo, or Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world), which Egyptians and other Arabs call this great metropolis. In Cairo, this awakening found a stage worthy of its ambitions. This most enigmatic of lands has always played tricks on those who would pronounce on its temperament. This "hydraulic society" often written off as the quintessential land of political submission, on the banks of an orderly and well-mannered river, has known ferocious rebellions. A classic account of this country is found in The Nile in Egypt (1937), by Emil Ludwig: "Once the fellahin (the peasants) and the workers of Egypt revolted against their masters; once their resentment burst out, a revolution dispossessed the rich men and the priests of Egypt of their power." One such revolution at the end of the Old Kingdom raged intermittently for two centuries (2350 BC–2150 BC). It had been Mubarak's good fortune that the land tolerated him for three decades and that he had been the designated successor of Anwar el-Sadat. His reign had become the third longest since Ramses II. He had been a cautious man, but his reign now sprouted dynastic ambitions. For 18 magical days in Tahrir Square, Egyptians of all walks of life came together to be rid of him. He had come out of the officer corps, and now the senior commanders of the armed forces cast him aside. He joined his fellow despot, the Tunisian Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had made a run for it a month earlier.
From Cairo, this awakening now had the chance to be a pan-Arab affair. It caught fire eastward in Yemen and Bahrain — the latter being the exception, a monarchy in a season where the republics of strongmen were the ones seized with unrest. The monarchies were whole, they had a fit between ruler and ruled; Bahrain stood apart, riven by a fault line between its Sunni rulers and Shia majority. It was in the nature of things that an eruption in Bahrain would turn into a sectarian feud. Yemen was the poorest of the Arab states, secessionist movements raged in its north and south, and its strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a polarizing figure who had no other skill save the art of political survival. The feuds of Yemen were obscure; they were quarrels of tribes and warlords. The wider Arab tumult had given Yemenis eager to be rid of this ruler the heart to persist in their challenge to him.
Then the revolt doubled back westward to Libya, flanked as that country was by Tunisia and Egypt. This was the kingdom of silence, the realm of the deranged "dean of Arab rulers," Muammar Qaddafi. For four tormenting decades, the Libyans were at the mercy of this warden of a big prison who was part tyrant, part buffoon. Qaddafi had eviscerated his society, the richest country in Africa with an abysmally impoverished population. This brutalized country had been ill-served by history. In the interwar years it had known savage colonial rule under the Italians. It had had a brief respite under an ascetic ruler, King Idris. But a revolutionary fever gripped it in the late 1960s. Iblis wa la Idris, "Better the devil than Idris," went the maxim of the time. And this country got what it wanted. Oil sustained the madness, European leaders and American intellectuals alike came courting, the ruler had wealth to dispense and bedouin kitsch. Qaddafi, a barely literate child of desert adversity, had his animal instinct: the ferocity with which he defended the regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali gave away his panic. He and his entitled children must have prepared for a reckoning of this kind: the underground tunnels were the works of a man who, on some level, intuited his own end. Benghazi, at some remove from his capital, rose against him; history now gave the Libyans a chance.
Qaddafi had erred. When Benghazi defied him, he had warned that his armor was on the way, that he would crush this rebellion house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, alleyway by alleyway. The League of Arab States, which had never stood up to a tyrant, gave a warrant for a Western intervention against him; he had offended and belittled his fellow rulers, turned his back on the Arab world, and dubbed himself "king of the kings of Africa." He was a man alone when Britain and France took the lead against him, and a reluctant American president, "leading from behind," launched a military intervention that decapitated this tyrannical regime. Barack Obama wanted no shades of Rwanda on his conscience, no mass slaughter in Benghazi staining his record. The Libyans had been lucky. Barack Obama himself would say that the intervention was a close-run affair, a 51–49 proposition, he would tell an interviewer for Vanity Fair. NATO functioned as the air force of this rebellion, and without foreign support it is certain that the despot and his mercenaries and his money would have crushed the rebellion.
* * *
The Egyptian rulers had said that their country was not Tunisia; Qaddafi had asserted that his republic differed from that of the Tunisians and the Egyptians. In the same vein, the ruler in Damascus said that his country differed from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. He was young whereas the rulers in those lands had been old men, and there was the myth of being a "confrontation state" against Israel to see his regime through. He spoke too soon: in mid-March, it was Syria's turn. The rebellion had not erupted in Aleppo or Damascus, nor had it flared up in Hama, the city in the central plains whose name evokes the terror of the war between Hafez al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood, which ended in terrible slaughter in February of 1982. This rebellion broke out in Deraa, a remote provincial town in the south by the border with Jordan, the kind of place out of which the Baath Party had risen in the early 1960s and had outgrown as it fell for the charms and ease of Damascus. Despotism and sectarianism — the rule of the Alawi minority that dominated the security forces and the army — begot the most fearsome state in the Arab east. This had been the handiwork of Hafez al-Assad, a man of supreme cunning and political skill.
Excerpted from In this Arab Time by Fouad Ajami. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by John Raisian,
In Memoriam: Our Magus by Charles Hill,
Introduction: A World Foreshadowed,
1 The Arab Awakening, 2011: The Year of Living Dangerously,
2 The Honor of Aleppo: A Syrian Novel and a Syrian Revolution,
3 The Sorrows of Egypt,
4 The Secular Inheritance,
5 The Sentry's Solitude: Pax Americana in the Arab World,
6 The Making of a Hijacker: The Banal Lie and Barbarous Deeds of a 9/11 Terrorist,
7 Writing Iraq,
8 The Furrows of Algeria,
9 The Traveler's Luck: V. S. Naipaul's Misunderstanding of Islam,
10 The Humanist in the Alleys: Naguib Mahfouz, 1911–2006,
11 The Making of Strangers: Muslims, Jews, and the Other 1492,
About the Author,
About the Hoover Institution's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order,